It's time for a new edition of 5 (or so) Questions. This time I had the pleasure of corresponding via email with Amy Sayre-Roberts about her amazing story "Whatsoever" from the current issue (vol. 9, no.1). She's one of our favorite people around here, so it's a special treat for me to present our conversation here. Amy has some insightful things to say about Mystery, research, and many other things. Enjoy!
9L: I keep calling "Whatsoever" a history in my head, rather than just a story. It certainly has all the hallmarks of a great story, but the characters, the world they live in are so richly rendered that it takes it takes it to another level of storytelling, where I really felt like you're letting the reader in on some secrets. Was that a goal when you started writing this story? What inspired you to write this particular story?
Amy Sayre-Roberts: Thinking of the story in terms of history certainly speaks to its origin. Two things happened simultaneously that birthed the story, I was researching my parents’ house for an article—their kitchen is what remains of an 1800’s era stagecoach stop— and in the midst of going to the Cass County Historical Society, I found a reference to Whatsoever Circles which were Christian women’s groups who undertook various projects in the community. Around the same time, my father mentioned a cemetery on our property that the previous resident had ploughed under. He said a local historian had been very angry about the dismantling of the gravestones. All that information collided in my brain like a crack of thunder. The characters leapt up and the narrative unraveled quickly. In some places, the narrative arrived so swiftly I had to just write, “and then this happens and then this happens and she’ll say…” and I fleshed the prose out later. The story landed on me fully formed and demanded to be written.
I didn’t start with a goal in mind. I don’t know how to do that. I admire people who can, but I have no talent therein. I get an image or a voice, and away we go, which can mean a tremendous amount of meandering to the final draft. But is there anything better than being in that creative moment? It’s like falling in love.
With that said, I have been writing around the idea of violence against women, and violence against children for a long time. “Whatsoever” was a framework to talk about violence as a historical continuum. Because when a child is abused or a woman is raped, that is not an incident operating in a vacuum, it’s a great and terrible river fed by many streams. I wanted to show the distortion violence creates in a child, and express that from various angles and points of view. My grandfather, William Wiley, had a saying, “Hunt or sell the gun.” That’s sort of where I was with writing about sexual violence, I had a ball of fire in my belly and I either had to write it out or shut up about it. So I went into the beautiful madness where art can take you, if you let it.
Lastly, I would say that I adore older women. I worship at the altar of grandmothers. To me, women over 70 are luminous and fierce individuals. No one has the equal amounts of mercy and steel as women in their eighties. But older women often disappear in American society; they are poetry in a cult of personality and crap magazines. In my mind, overlooking these women, their intellect and experience is a fatal mistake. I hope the sisters in “Whatsoever” remind folks of that.
9L: Did you ever consider writing the story from the twins’ point of view or did Dickie feel just right given how quickly it came to you?
ASR: Dickie was always the main point of view. Life through his lens was unfamiliar territory to me and I wanted to see the whole picture his voice would paint. Though I did cut about 5 pages from the original draft that dealt more with the twins. Mostly back story. This story is part of a collection of inter-connected tales, and I do have some notes on them as children in the first person.
9L: Flannery O'Connor said something great in her essay about writers of the Grotesque, saying, such writers are more interested in the possible rather than the probable. While "Whatsoever" is certainly very grounded, there is also this sense, at least to me, that at the end of the day the possible would win out over the probable. I guess I mean to say that Mystery is very important to the story. What were the challenges, if any, in walking that line of keeping this sense of the possible/mystery, while also keeping it down to Earth?
ASR: I think you have to follow the logic of a good ghost story. Never tell the mundane or gory facts of why there is hand hanging from the car door, just show the hand and let the imagination do the heavy lifting. The great challenge for me is always in not telling too much. I culled pages of back story that was essential to have written because the knowledge imbued the piece with a sense of history, but the reader can feel that weight without reading every word. Between what you write and what a reader can imagine is the terrain of Mystery.
It’s sort of like a whistler in the dark. We have one in our neighborhood. It was chilling the first time I heard him. So lonesome and strange having just woke from a dead sleep, and my mind was already forming a picture of the street and the dark figure the sound was emanating from. (In all fairness, he is actually just a nice man who can’t sleep and whistles as he walks, but until you know that, it’s creepy). My point is that I tried to allow the reader a structured landscape to let loose their own imagination, then all the previous details can become devils. With "Whatsoever," I wanted to privilege the power of the unexplained.
9L: You said that you were researching your parents’ house when you found out the information that would spark "Whatsoever," so how much research did you end up doing for this story? I'm curious if you try to do as much research as possible before starting a story/project or do you research as you go? Any tips for not being dragged down into a research abyss?
ASR: I probably spent two or three days digging around in libraries, talking to people, and walking and driving the old stage coach road. I was entering into a relationship with the information because “Whatsoever” is just one story in a collection I am working on where all the research for each story feeds the other pieces as well. As soon as I had the basic details the voices started talking. Combing through local histories, newspapers, and documents grounded the story and set the tone and context. And my father is like a walking dictionary of local history and folklore, he remembers everything he has ever been told or read so talking out an idea with him is helpful.
I’ve never felt the threat of too much research or a research abyss, and I hope other writer’s don’t either. Research to me is like opening a gift. I guess I still love the Nancy Drew aspect of unraveling a mystery. I think a writer needs to do just enough research to get the characters talking and then their language becomes the story’s landscape.
Facts are a great springboard for the imagination. I think of facts as a spark and the story you write is the fire that results, an entity all its own that both consumes and transforms the point of origin. But the balance between research and the actual writing is intuitive. When you have researched enough, the characters start to speak. If they get quiet, you might want to go back over your notes and see what you missed. Or better yet, ask the character what you are missing. They’ll tell you. Characters are just like people, they love to talk. I believe you have to get really intimate with your characters: lay down with them, follow them through the dark places, get up under their skin, that’s where the secrets are, and that is where you find what makes them choose. And ultimately, we are what we choose.
9L: What's the last thing you read that you really loved and couldn't wait to tell people about?
ASR: Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories by Melinda Moustakis. Brilliant. From page one, I could not put that book down. I recommend you stop what you are doing right now and get a copy. An amazing read: lyric, dark, sometimes funny, and features Malamutes in at least one story. That is an irresistible combination for me.
Thank you very much to Amy for taking the time to answer my questions. I had a blast discussing this story with her. To read "Whatsoever" and all the other wonderful fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in vol. 9, no. 1, pick up a copy in our webstore.